Chou En-lai Analysis
Archer’s Chou En-lai is not a mere chronicle of this leader’s historical accomplishments. It is a remarkable portrait of Chou as a man of brilliant wit, stern integrity, radiant exuberance, charming grace, extraordinary courage, and composure. With clarity, sensitivity, and momentum, Archer delineates these qualities, which made Chou a charismatic leader. To create a three-dimensional character, he portrays Chou’s personality not only in his political life but in his personal life as well, especially his love for and marriage with Teng Ying-chao. Archer not only directly narrates Chou’s actions and reactions at critical moments but also includes dramatic scenes that reveal his character, such as his meeting during the Sian Incident with Chiang Kai-shek, who put an $80,000 bounty on his head, or his encounter at a Geneva conference with U.S. secretary of state John Foster Dulles, who said that he expected to meet Chou privately only if their automobiles collided. Observations of Chou by his admirers, detractors, and adversaries are also incorporated into the narrative in order to shed light on his character from different angles. Thanks to Archer’s skillful characterization, the reader can visualize Chou’s image even without the aid of photographs or other illustrations.
Archer employs a dispassionate tone, but he is not apathetic. In writing the biography, he entered into a certain relationship with his subject and, according to noted children’s literature author Jean Fritz, “put his stamp on the material.” His attitude toward Chou is explicitly expressed in valuative comments, as shown in his description of the controversy over Chou’s political flexibility and resilience. Chou was derisively dubbed as “the elastic Bolshevik” and “the Confucian Communist.” Archer does not refrain from defending him: Chou’s gift to get out of tight spots, he writes, “was less that of an opportunist than of an amiable man who mixes well with others and is personally popular at all levels.” Apart from direct authorial comments, the reader can also detect between the lines the author’s respect for his subject. This does not mean that Chou is always shown in his best colors. Archer does not hesitate to mention Chou’s weaknesses, failures, and even occasional cruelties. The result is a realistic, balanced, and, at the same time, affectionate portrait.
While recounting Chou En-lai’s historical accomplishments, Archer smoothly integrates sufficient contemporary information into the narrative to establish the political scene for Chou’s activities. A description of China being decimated by corruption, poverty, and wars under warlord rule in the 1920’s provides a backdrop for the rise of student movements in which Chou stood at the forefront; the account of Nikita Khrushchev’s attack on Joseph Stalin in the Soviet Union, the split within the communist world that followed, and the subtle give-and-take relationship between the Chinese and Soviet communist parties put in clear focus the magnitude of Chou’s firm yet tactful struggle with the Kremlin. This concise background information creates a context especially helpful to readers less knowledgeable about the modern history of China.
Overall, this biography is true to historical facts, but a few minor inaccuracies should be noted. For example, in the chapter dealing with the Cultural Revolution, the author writes that “confessions of errors” permitted Liu Shao-chi and Teng Hsiao-ping to keep their positions in the all-powerful Politburo. In reality, they were both deposed and jailed. Liu later died in limbo, while Teng survived. Despite such blemishes, Archer’s Chou En-lai remains a fascinating authentic biography for young adults and adults as well.